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"He does not know how to play or sing very much," he said, "but it is somehow agreeable though a little heart-rending to my middle-age. He is clearly quite young, his voice is unformed yet, and I should guess he is thinking of Her. Enviable young wretch! For though, Miss Joyce, we miserable ones go a thinking of one or another Her all our lives, they cease to think of us, just when we need them most."
There was considerable adroitness in this speech as a prelude to greater directness, and he looked at her out of his little grey eyes with some intentness. She seemed more Diana-like than ever in this grey glimmer of starlight: it really seemed possible that she would spring up from the earth to meet the tawny moon-disc that was even now just rising in the East, and charioteer it over the star-scattered fields of heaven. She seemed dressed for her part as Mistress of the Moon, all in white with a riband of silver in her bright hair.
"But what of us?" she said lightly. "Do not you men cease to think of us even before we are middle-aged?"
Suddenly it struck Craddock that no more heaven-sent opportunity for carrying out the second of the purposes that had brought him down here, could possibly be desired. He was in luck to-day, too: the business of the portrait had been carried through so smoothly, so easily. But immediately he became aware that he was not, in vulgar parlance, quite up to it. He needed support, he needed her father's consent, but above all he needed the imperative call, the hunger of the soul. Clearly, too, her words did not refer, however remotely, to herself and him, he felt that they were spoken quite impersonally. And immediately she changed the subject.
"I have to thank you," she said, "for trying to dissuade my father from selling the portrait. He told me you had suggested that he should not. That was kind of you."
He caressed the side of his face with the usual gratifying result.
"I found his mind was made up," he said, "though in accordance with your request I suggested he should not sell it. Always command me, Miss Joyce, and I will always fly on your quests. I am aware that I do not look particularly like a knight-errant, but there are motor-cars and railway-trains nowadays which transport us more swiftly and less hazardously than mettlesome chargers, especially if we can't ride."
He had again made himself an opening, but again he found when he came close that it was barricaded to him. But this time some hint of his intentions, though he could not manage to carry them into effect, was communicated to her, and conscious of them, and uncomfortable at them, she again changed the subject.
"Oh, I am not going to ask you to take the train to-night," she said. "The most I shall ask of you is that you play b?zique with my father by and by. I play so badly that it is no fun for him. Hark, the singing is coming closer."
They had come to the landing-stage at the far end of the lawn, and looking up the tranquil lane of the river Joyce saw that the sound came from a Canadian canoe which was drifting downstream towards them.The boat itself was barely visible in the shadow of the trees: it was conjectured rather than seen by the outline of shirt-sleeves that outlined it, and it was on the further side of the stream. By this time the moon had swung clear to the horizon, and though the boat was still shadowed, Joyce and Craddock standing on the lawn were in the full white light. At the moment the musical comedy song came to an end, and the voice of some imprudent person from the canoe, forgetting the distinctness with which sound traverses water, spoke in a voice that was perfectly audible to Joyce, though not to Craddock.
"Charles, there's the girl of the punt and her fat white man," it observed.
Charles was more circumspect. His answer was a murmur quite inaudible, and instantly he thrummed his guitar again. The melody was new to Joyce, and though he might not have great skill in singing, he had a crisp enunciation, and the delicious old words were clearly audible:
Louder and more distinct every moment, as the canoe drifted closer came the beautiful lyric. The singer was not using more than half his voice, but as the distance between canoe and audience diminished, the light boyish tenor was sufficiently resonant to set the windless air a-quiver. Just as the canoe emerged into the blaze of moonlight opposite came the final stave, and the white-shirted singer sang from a full and open throat:
The silence of the night shut down like the lid of a jewel-box. Then after a little while came the drip of a paddle, and the canoe grew small and dim in the distance down-stream.
"Those jolly boys again," said Joyce.
Arthur Craddock heaved a long sigh, horribly conscious of his years and riches, and Joyce heard the creak of his shirt-front.
"That young man has diplomatic gifts," he said. "It is clear that he intended to serenade you, and he chose the far side of the river, so as to make it seem that he had no intention of any kind. It is a reasonable supposition that if serenading was his object, and it certainly was, he might be supposed not to see you standing here. So he serenaded with the open throat. If I tried to do the same, which sorely tempts me, I should only convince you that I had not an open throat but a sore one. Nobody has ever heard me sing, not even when I was as young as that white shirted youth in the canoe. He will paddle back to his tent before long, unless you stay here visible in the moonlight, and dream steadily about you till morning."
"Oh, what nonsense, Mr. Craddock," she said, knowing in the very secret place of her girl's heart that it was not nonsense at all. "Boats with guitars and singers go by every night, and often half the night. They can't all be serenading me."
"I cannot imagine why not. A Mormonism of serenading young men is not illegal. I would join them myself, Miss Joyce, if I could sing, and if I did not think that any Canadian canoe in which I embarked would instantly sink."
Philip Wroughton, in addition to the glass of champagne he had drunk at dinner permitted himself the further indulgence of sitting up for nearly an hour beyond his usual bedtime to talk to his guest and read more about the delectable climate of the Upper Nile. While Craddock and Joyce were out in the garden, a train of thoughts had been suggested to him by his very shrewd mother before she began her Patience, which he was preparing to indicate ever so lightly to that gentleman after Joyce had gone upstairs. "He's got your picture, Philip," said that observant lady, "and now he's after your daughter. Why don't you send Joyce up to town for a month, and give the girl a chance? You're a selfish fellow you know, like all Wroughtons." But she had not succeeded in provoking him to a retort, nor had she affected the independence of his own conclusions. It required no great perspicacity to see that Craddock was considerably attracted by the girl, and it seemed to her father that she might easily marry less suitably for him. She had led a very solitary and sequestered life with him, and he did not propose to alter his habits in order that she might come more in contact with the world. True, in this projected Egyptian winter she was likely to meet more young men than she had ever come across in her life before, but he could not imagine any one who would suit him (as if it was his own marriage that was in contemplation) better than Craddock. Philip found him quiet and deferential and agreeable, and since it was certainly necessary that Joyce and her husband (if she was permitted to marry) should be with him a good deal, these were favourable points. He detested young men with their high spirits and loud laughs and automatic digestions, and he did not for a moment intend to have such a one about the house. Furthermore Craddock was certainly very well off (Philip would have had a fit if he had known that he and his picture were in the act, so to speak, of enriching him more) and it was clearly desirable to have wealth about the house. Possibly some one more eligible might discover himself, but Philip had little difficulty in convincing himself that he would be failing in his duty towards his daughter if he did not let Craddock know that his attentions to Joyce were favourably regarded by her father. But if his meditations were stripped of the fabric of unrealities, until truth in bare austerity was laid open, it must be confessed that he planned Joyce's possible marriage with a single eye for his own comfort.
A game of b?zique succeeded Craddock's stroll with Joyce and a cigarette with a whisky and soda consoled him for the withdrawal of the ladies.
"And you have positively to go up to town again to-morrow," said Philip. "Cannot we by any means persuade you to stay another night? You in your modesty have no idea what a refreshment it is to us in our retirement to get a whiff of air from the busy bustling world. Yes, I may say 'us,' for my dear little Joyce was so pleased at your coming. Would you not be more prudent to close that window? I am sure you are sitting in a draught."
This, of course, meant that Philip was, and Craddock did not misunderstand.
"I was saying that Joyce was so pleased," repeated her father.
"I ask nothing better than to please Miss Joyce," said Craddock.
"You do please her: I am sure of it. Dear Joyce! I know it cannot be long that I shall be able to give her a home. Her future continually occupies my thoughts. I daresay she will meet someone when we winter in Egypt who will attract her. She is not ill-looking, is she? I think there must be many suitable men whom she would be disposed to regard not unfavourably. Yes, yes."
It was all spoken very softly and tunefully: the calm sunset of declining day seemed to brood over it. The effect was that Arthur Craddock got up and paced the room once or twice in silence.
"Will you give me your permission to ask Miss Joyce if she will make me the happiest of men?" he asked.
"My dear friend!" said Philip, with hand outstretched.
Dawn was brightening in the sky though the sun was not yet risen when Charles Lathom awoke next morning in the tent by the river-side. Close by him in the narrow limits of their shelter his brother Reggie was lying on his back still fast asleep with mouth a little parted, a plume of tumbled hair falling over his forehead, and a bare brown arm and shoulder outside the sheet in which he was loosely wrapped. Late last night, after they had got back from their moonlit drift down the river, Reggie, who, to do him justice, had done all the paddling so as to leave Charles free to serenade, saw the propriety of one dip in the pool below the weir before bed, and had come back into the boat dripping and refreshed and glistening, and without further formality of drying, had curled himself up and gone to sleep with a mocking reference to the lady of the punt. The picture of him taking a header into the pool, now on the point of completion, leaned against the tent-side, and a couple of bags gaping open and vomiting clothes and brushes, and a box of provisions, the lid of which did duty for a table, completed the furniture of the tent. Charles got up quietly, so as not to disturb the sleeper, and went out into the clean dewy morning. The thickets behind their encampment were a-chirrup with the earliest bird-music of the day, and high up in the zenith a few wisps of cloud that had caught the sun not yet risen on the earth itself, had turned rosy with the dawn. The spouting of the weir made a bass for the staccato treble of the birds, but otherwise the stillness of night was not yet broken. Little ripples lapped at the side of the Canadian canoe drawn half out of the water onto a bank blue with forget-me-not, and a tangle of briar-rose with cataract of pink folded petals hung motionless over the water. Then with a sudden shout of awakened colour the first long level rays of the sun sped across the meadows, and with the sigh of the wind of dawn the world awoke.
The morning light was what Charles needed for his picture, but not less did he need his brother, for the painting of the braced shoulder-muscles of his arms as they pointed above his head for the imminent plunge. Sun and dappled shade from the trees that bounded the meadow just beside the weir fell onto his naked body, making here a splash of brilliant light, here a green stain of sunlight filtering through the translucent leaves, while his face and the side of his body seen almost in profile were brilliantly illuminated by the glint from the shining pool below him. But underneath these surface lights there had to be indicated the building and interlacement of the firm muscles and supple sinews of his body. He had all but finished them, he had all but recorded what he saw, but it was necessary that Reggie should stand for him just a little while more. Meantime, since it was still so early, and his brother still so profoundly dormant, there was a little more work to be done to the ecstatic dance of sunlight on the pool. Just at the edge the shadow of the wall of the weir lay over it, and it was deep brown with a skin of reflected blue from the sky, but a few yards out the sun kindled a galaxy of golden stars, flowers of twinkling and dazzling light.
He got his picture out of the tent, set it on its easel, and put a kettle of water on the spirit-lamp. It was still far too early to have breakfast, but a cup of tea brought presently to Reggie's bedside might tend to make him unresentful of being awakened when Charles found he could get on no further without him. So when this was ready, Charles rattled the sugar in its tin loud enough to wake not one only but seven sleepers, and Reggie sat up with a justifiable start.
"What the deuce – " he began.
"Sorry," said Charles. "I'm afraid I made rather a row. But I've made some tea, too. Have a cup?"
"Of course. Is it late?"
"Well, no, not very. I've been up some little time painting. But I can't get on any more without you!"
Reggie gave a great yawn.
"I suppose that means you want me to turn out, and stand with my arms up on that header-board. It's lucky I have the patience of an angel."
"Archangel," said Charles, fulsomely. "You've been a real brick about it."
"And will you get breakfast ready if I come now?"
"Yes, and I'll make both beds."
Reggie accordingly got up and glanced at the picture as he passed it on his way to the header-board.
"I suppose I am like a dappled frog, if you insist on it," he said, "but a devilish finely-made young fellow."
"Absolute Adonis," said Charles humbly. "Oh, Reggie, stand exactly like that as long as you possibly can. That's exactly right."
The work went on in silence after this, for the modelling of muscle and flesh below this checker of light and shade and reflection was utterly absorbing to the artist. He had tried all ways of solving this subtle and complicated problem: once he had put in the curves and shadows of the tense muscles first, and painted the diaper of sun and shade on the top of it, but that made the skin thick and muddy in texture. Once he had mapped the sunlight and surface shadows first and overlaid them with the indicated muscles, but this seemed to turn the model inside out. Then only yesterday he had seen that the whole thing must be painted in together, laid on in broad brushfuls of thin paint, so that the luminousness and solidity should both be preserved, and this method was proving excitingly satisfactory. Often during this last week he had almost despaired of accomplishing that which he had set himself to do, but stronger than his despair was his absolute determination to record what he saw, not only what he knew to be there. It was impossible for his brother to hold this tiring pose for more than a couple of minutes, and often it was difficult to get its resumption accurately. But this morning Reggie seemed to fall or rather stretch himself into the correct position without effort, and Charles on his side knew that to-day he had the clear-seeing eye and the clever co-ordinating hand. For an hour of pose and rest Reggie stood there, and then Charles stepped a few yards away from his canvas, and stood a moment biting the end of his brush, and frowning as he looked from model to picture and back again. Then the frown cleared.
"Thanks most awfully, Reggie," he said. "It's done: good or bad, it's done."
Reggie gave a great shout, and disappeared altogether in the pool.
Charles made breakfast ready according to agreement, and the two sat for a while afterwards in the stupefaction of out-door content.
"This week has gone on wings," said Reggie, "and it's an awful melancholy thing to think that this is my last day here. But it's been a beauty of a week, I'm no end grateful to you for bringing me."
Reggie had the caressing moods of a very young thing. As he spoke he left his seat and established himself on the ground leaning back against his brother's knees and anchoring himself with a hand passed round his leg.
"I should have had to stew in Sidney Street for my week of holiday," he went on, "if it hadn't been for you. It was ripping of you to let me come."
"It's I who score," said Charles. "You've earned your keep all right. I should have had to hire a model otherwise, or have done without one."
"Oh, well, then, we both score."
Reggie threw away the end of his cigarette and abstracted Charles' case from his pocket.
"I must go up to town this afternoon," he said, "for Thistleton's Gallery opens again to-morrow morning. And there I shall sit, all July, at the receipt of custom and sell catalogues and make the turn-stile click and acknowledge receipts … oh, a dog's life. Jove, what a lot of money some of those fellows have! There was an American who came in last week and went around the gallery with a great fat white man called Craddock who often comes and shows people round. I rather think he is Thistleton, and owns the place. I say, Charles – "
Reggie broke off suddenly.
"Why, I believe it was he who was in the punt last night," he said, "and was standing on the lawn with that girl you sang at – "
"Didn't notice him particularly," said Charles.
"No, you were noticing somebody else particularly. But I feel sure it was he. As I say, he was taking an American round last week, who bought a couple of little Dutch pictures. He stopped at my desk on the way out and borrowed my pen and wrote a cheque for ?5000 right straight off, without coughing. I remember he said he was going to post-date it. But he didn't tip me."
"I don't quite know what this is all about," remarked Charles.
"Nor do I. I hoped it was just agreeable conversation. Don't you find it so? But I bet you what you like that the fat white man in the punt was Craddock."
Reggie lay further back against his brother's legs.
"I see a great tragedy ahead," he said, "with inquests and executions. Craddock is about to marry the girl of the punt, and Charles will cut his throat, and – "
"Whose throat?" asked Charles.
"His own or Craddock's; perhaps Craddock's first and his own afterwards. Then there will be a sensational trial, and I can't bother to make up any more. Are you going to paint all the morning, Charles?"
"No, none of it. It's enough for to-day to have finished you. I shall stop down here a day or two more and do another sketch after you have gone. I'm at your disposal this morning."
"Then let us do nothing for a long time, and then bathe for a long time, and then do both all over again. Lord, I wish I was an artist like you, instead of a doorkeeper, to stop about all day in delicious places, and do exactly what you like best in the world, which is to paint."
"It would make it completer if anybody wanted best in the world to buy what I had painted," remarked Charles.
"But you sold two water colours the other day for three pounds each," remarked the consolatory Reggie. "That's as much as I earn in a month."
"It might happen oftener," said Charles. "By the way, I heard from Mother last night."
"A nice woman," said Reggie.
"Quite. She sent me another sovereign in case funds had run low. When you get back you will find she has been living on tea and toast because she didn't feel hungry."
Reggie gave a huge sigh.
"I wish a man might marry his mother," he observed. "I should certainly marry her and we would ask you and the punt-girl to stay with us."
"Very kind," said Charles.
These two young men who were enjoying so open-aired a week of June by the Thames-side were the only children of the widow whom they kindly agreed to regard as a "nice woman." They had been brought up in easy and well-to-do circumstances, and educated at public schools, until the suicide of their father a little more than a year ago had disclosed a state of affairs that was as appalling as it was totally unexpected. He was a jobber on the stock-exchange and partner in a firm of high repute, but he had been privately indulging in a course of the wildest gambling, and he could not face the exposure which he knew could no longer be avoided. The sale of the pleasant country home at Walton Heath, and the disposal of all that could be converted into cash had been barely sufficient to make an honourable settlement of his unimagined debts. Neither his wife nor either of the boys had ever dreamed of the possibility of such a situation: never had it appeared that he had had the slightest anxiety with regard to money. His self-control had been perfect until, as with the breaking of some dam, it had given way altogether in ruin and destruction. Till that very moment he had been the gayest and youngest of that eager little family party, all of whom brought an extraordinary lightness and zest to the conduct of their unclouded lives. Charles had already left school for a three years when the stroke fell, and was studying in a famous atelier in Paris, while Reggie, still at Marlborough, was devoting as much time as he could reasonably be expected to spare from athletic exercises to the acquiring of foreign tongues with a view to the diplomatic service. They had both been instantly sent for by their mother, who met his death with a fortitude that never wavered. It was not long that they had to wait for the explanation of the utterly unlooked-for catastrophe, for a very short examination of his private papers showed the extent of his defaulting and the imminence of the crash. Willingly, had it been possible, would she have kept from her sons the knowledge that he had killed himself, bearing alone the unshared secret, but an explanation of accident was impossible. Equally impossible was it to conceal the miserable cause of it.
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